Judge allows family of man shot by police to pursue legal claims that HPD lacked training

A judge is allowing three of their five claims even though the suspect drove at the officers.
Published: Oct. 26, 2022 at 5:33 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 26, 2022 at 5:35 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A federal judge issued a key ruling in a lawsuit against Honolulu Police over the shooting death of a 26-year-old man in Mililani in 2019.

U.S. District Judge Jill Otake ruled that the family of Kyle Thomas can pursue claims against the city and the HPD that plainclothes officers lacked training when they surrounded his car in a residential neighborhood and shot him.

The ruling also allows the family to re-file wrongful death and negligence claims against the HPD and the city.

“These crime reduction unit officers are out on the street with guns and no other implements of force. So when they run into any kind of a situation, the first recourse is to shoot and kill people,” said Eric Seitz, attorney for the family.

“I would say this cases has to be settled. Because otherwise the city is going to face millions and millions of dollars of litigation expenses and ultimately have judgments against them.”

Thomas was under investigation for a shoplifting incident at the nearby Walmart when plainclothes officers from the HPD’s crime reduction unit surrounded his car. Police said Thomas drove at them, prompting officers to open fire.

But in the lawsuit, Thomas’ family alleged that the officers did not identify themselves when they approached his car. They said one of the officers shot Thomas first and a passenger grabbed Thomas’s leg to stop the bleeding.

At the time, Thomas’ injured leg was on the gas pedal and the motion forced the car to go forward, the suit said.

That’s when officers fired the shots that killed him.

Honolulu police declined comment on the specifics of the case because the suit is pending.

But HPD said it was committed to providing the best training for its officers.

Back in 2020, then-Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard defended the shooting as justified.

“The first officer who was holding onto the door of the vehicle feared for the second officer’s life and fired at the suspect,” she said.

But Ballard also told the police commission in 2020 that the department was reviewing its use of force policies.

“We’re looking at doing more formal training for plain-clothes units and also looking for intermediate weapons for them. Because right now, they just carry their guns. And it goes from touch to bang and there’s no options between,” she said.

Legal experts said the claim the police officers lacked training could cost the city and the HPD millions.

“They’re not in marked automobiles. When they are not in uniform, when they’re in plain clothes ... these things happen. We’ve seen too many automobiles being shot at and people killed in Hawaii,” said Ken Lawson, of the University of Hawaii law school.

“Taxpayers are going to be on the hook. If it settles, you’re looking at nine-figures.”